Find the Food, Find the Elk
Experienced elk hunters, terrestrial biologists, DNR type folks, and this writer agree, the number one item on an elk’s checklist of priorities is locating and consuming food of the highest nutritional quality available. Ninety percent of an elk’s day is consumed with feeding and resting. While other needs may rank high, absolutely nothing supersedes an elk’s dietary requirements. Not security and not breeding...survival is about food. Without the essential nutrition elk acquire by feeding, all else is pretty much a moot point. If you are serious about elk hunting, you should get serious on learning about their feeding habits.
When I began my research for the subject matter that would eventually become “the meat and potatoes” of this book, I decided to do something different, I pulled out my entire library of elk hunting literature, books, magazines, journals, everything. I didn’t have any idea how much of this stuff I had until it was all there in the middle of my office floor, stacks and stacks, piles upon piles. Then I began to search out the critical information that was missing or only minimally addressed in the literature. To my surprise, at the top of the list were elk feeding habits. I thought, how could such an essential topic manage to acquire so little attention? Like humans and all other creatures elk require fuel [food] to exist. Cell generation and repair, respiration, circulation, propagation, gestation, survival, fight or flight, each aspect of existence requires fuel to function. Nutrition is the key ingredient to survival.
In all the years that I have been elk hunting, I have yet to knowingly run into a hunter in the field that could tell me, by name and sight, which plant that elk prefer to feed on. While I am sure that there are many hunters that do possess this information, I offer that they may be the exception rather than the rule. Therefore this discussion will focus on elk feeding habits, including the differences between the feeding habits of bull and cow elk. By understanding the specifics of how and why elk feed as they do, it should lead us to a better understanding of the elk, which hopefully will allow us as hunters to better predict where elk will be at a given time.
When planning a future hunt the smart hunter should factor into the plan two established aspects of elk behavior. First, elk are exceedingly opportunistic, meaning that they are adaptable and will whenever possible take advantage of favorable situations. It is this opportunism that has caused elk to become such a migratory creature seizing upon a variety of food sources. How does this play out for the hunter?
In the fall as forage with the high nutritional value elk require to make it through the rut and the following winter months becomes more and more scarce, the elk are motivated to continually travel to new growth food sources as they become available. They will exploit these until the food source is depleted or other factors such as extreme weather or predators force them to move on. Sources of new growth forage change as seasons progress from late August into the early winter months. In late August and early September, new growth can still be found throughout most elk summer range in open grasslands, moist secluded forests, near valley floor seeps, and along water sources near the heads of drainages. It is this broad dispersal of food sources with a high nutritional value that factors into why elk may be in a particular drainage today and in another drainage tomorrow.
Once the frosts of mid to late September begin to take their toll on the quality of food in a particular area, the elk will move again in search of quality forage. When adverse weather, either too warm or too cold, moves into the area, elk herds usually break into smaller groups and will quickly seek the late season new growth and security that can be found on the forest floor in heavily timbered tracts which also offer a protective thermal barrier from the effects of the weather. This shift from open area grazing to forests is usually abrupt because it typically coincides with the beginning of hunting season. While hunting pressure is a factor in the transition, research indicates that this movement is related more to the availability of forage with high nutritional value and changes in temperature. As freezing nights take their toll on grassland food sources, the elk will transition from graze to browse and their use of forested areas will increase. Concurrent with the onset of hunting seasons is the rut, which throws a wrench into the normal foraging patterns of the elk. Bulls and cows alike are required to put reproduction on the front burner for a short period of time. It is during the rut that bulls may burn off as much as thirty percent of their accumulated body fat herding and breeding, leaving them in a severely energy depleted state going into winter.
Following the rut, with the possible exception of a few younger bulls, the cows and bulls begin to separate. Studies suggest that it is the bulls that choose to leave the cows. Factors that influence this decision are that bulls, having expended large amounts of energy, must make the most of the time remaining to build fat stores before the deep snows of winter arrive. To avoid competing for essential forage with the cows whose reproductive priorities are to optimize security for calves over quality forage; the bulls depart the herd for areas where competition is less. Larger more mature herd bulls that have expended more of their energy and fat reserves usually seek the best opportunities they can find for food as well as refuge from hunters in secluded forested tracts at the highest elevations. Another factor for this dispersal of cows and bulls is predation. As the snow level gets deeper in the high country an elk’s ability to flee is impaired and antlered bulls in a herd of cows easily stand out to predators, thus by remaining with the herd they risk becoming a target, especially older bulls. By separating from the cows and seeking out more secluded feeding and bedding areas, the bulls feel more secure.
Secondly, the lives of elk revolve around what Thomas & Toweill in their 1982 volume, Elk of North America; Ecology and Management refer to as the Law of Least Effort. This means that the necessary resources that elk require must be obtained with a minimum of effort in order to maximize the benefits derived. This rule is predominant in elk behavior and is evidenced by the amount of time elk invest in eating and resting as discussed earlier. The balance of their day, ten percent or less, is spent standing and walking around usually in close proximity to their bedding areas, the objective being to store up as much energy and fat as possible, while burning minimal calories. Elk behavior in winter such as walking one behind another in deep snow, feeding in softer shallow snow, or migrating to lower areas where they do not have to work as hard to feed are evidence of this.
I admit that for years I failed to give much attention to the differences in the feeding patterns of cow elk and those of bulls. In most cases during the hunting season, when we ran into a mixed herd of elk, i.e. cows and bulls, I was more focused on getting setup for a shot, and never gave their feeding habits a second thought. In recent years, however, with the heavy increases in hunting pressure on public lands, finding the elk has become the #1 challenge. Like most hunters, when the elk appeared to become scarce, we applied what might be called a brute force strategy, i.e. hunt harder and hunt longer. Unfortunately this strategy failed to produce the expected result. It was this failed strategy that I have witnessed or learned from year after year in camp after camp that brought me to the point of examining how most elk hunters hunt and what can be done to help them become more successful.
As a professional hunting consultant, writer and conference speaker on elk hunting, I have access to some of the best minds in the industry, from which I gather essential information on elk, elk hunting, and elk country. From guides and outfitters, to professional hunters, elk biologists, game managers, wildlife officers, and others, the answer to my search for a better strategy was the same: if you want to get into the elk, you have to hunt smarter! If we want to become more successful elk hunters in an ever-increasing environment of high-pressured elk, we will have to learn more about the elk themselves.
Dissimilar Feeding Habits of Bulls and Cows
So how is a cow’s feeding different from that of a bull? Due the cow’s role in reproduction, cow elk have an enhanced ability to acquire and store fat and nutrients from the forage they feed on during summer and fall. As a result of her increased ability to store fat and nutrients, the cow is not as dependent on high quality feed and thus can ingest more fibrous material than a bull during long winter months and is not as pressured to continually seek out new high quality food sources. Also because of her reserves, she will not have to feed as much or as often in winter. Not having to focus as much on forage, a cow’s time is spent more on protecting her calf from predators. Large cow-calf herds that gather for mutual security and are observed in elk country throughout the winter evidence this.
Bulls on the other hand, especially the older mature bulls sought after by hunters, must pack away all the high quality nutrients they can find. The average bull will consume as much as twelve pounds of forage per day. If he hopes to survive the extreme temperatures found in elk country in winter, avoid predators, and play his role in maintaining the gene pool, he must focus his post rut efforts on maximizing his intake while minimizing his exertion…. again the law of least effort. As a vital player in the future of the gene pool, he must not compete with the cows that are responsible for producing and protecting the next generation. Due to his larger body size and antlers, the bull can afford to trade off security for forage. Soon after the end of the rut, the bulls begin to drift away from the cow-calf herd in search of sources of nutrient rich food. Less mature bulls may be found in small bachelor groups again as they were in summer if the forage is plentiful, but older larger bulls become quite solitary and reclusive.
Because of their larger body size and its ability to absorb more heat, bulls must disperse significantly more retained heat than cows. This requirement causes bulls to seek out cooler areas in which to feed and rest such as dark timber, blow downs, and shadier North facing slopes on warmer days or days of bright sun. Typically larger bulls are the last to evacuate the cooler high country when winter snows begin to accumulate.
I have often been asked, “How much snow does it take to move elk out of the high country?” My hip pocket response is that when the snow depth begins to come up to an elk’s belly, they start looking for an easier place to find lunch. For cow elk this may be 14 to 18 inches while for bulls it may take as much as 24 inches of snow to move them to another area. Keep in mind that there are no hard and fast numbers on this and that other factors may affect when elk begin to move down the mountain in search of an easier to obtain meal.
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